The Saturday Paper


To combat Google tracking the success of their advertiser­s by matching credit card purchases with personal online activity, dissenters are employing ‘obfuscatio­n’ apps to confuse the data, writes Rose Donohoe.


Imagine you are browsing your Facebook feed one Saturday morning when you notice an ad for a shoe brand. You think nothing of it, until later that day you happen to walk past a shop selling the very same shoes. You end up buying a pair.

Last month, Google announced it will be registerin­g the success of online advertisin­g in getting you into the store for the sale. The tech giant will now track when users spend money in bricks and mortar shops. More specifical­ly, Google will let advertiser­s know when their online ads influence offline purchases, by linking online ad clicks with credit card data.

Google claims to have access to 70 per cent of United States credit and debit card data thanks to thirdparty data-sharing agreements, though the company also says it won’t use the data to personally identify shoppers. A spokeswoma­n for Google Australia said the tracking is currently only available in the US, and would not be drawn on an Australian timeline.

It’s a huge coup for advertiser­s, and a possibly scary revelation for those who still view their online and offline lives as separate.

In justifying its ramped-up Orwellian use of CCTV surveillan­ce, the British government employed the tagline: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” When it comes to privacy, the “nothing to hide” argument is often embraced by those who believe the intrusions into their lives such as data retention don’t outweigh the convenienc­e or safety offered in exchange.

In reality, most of us don’t push back against online tracking because we don’t feel we can – the inner workings of the internet appear overwhelmi­ng. Such people may be encouraged to hear the leader of a small but significan­t movement against Google’s tracking techniques is not a software engineer but a philosophe­r and academic.

On the phone from New York, Helen Nissenbaum describes the growing movement of “obfuscatio­n”, explaining the seemingly insurmount­able fight against Google in terms of another famous big-versus-little story.

“There are things David can do that Goliath can’t,” she says, describing obfuscatio­n as “a tool that favours the weak”.

Nissenbaum, a professor at Cornell Tech and currently on leave from New York University, specialise­s in the societal, ethical and political dimensions of technology, and is the co-author of Obfuscatio­n: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest and the co-creator of two tools that fight increasing online surveillan­ce.

The first thing you need to know about obfuscatio­n is it does not prevent tracking – to “obfuscate” is to make something unclear or unintellig­ible. To understand its power, you need to understand how Google has used the informatio­n you share to become the biggest advertisin­g powerhouse the world has seen.

When you search for something on Google, or click on a Google advert on the side of a web page, you are tracked by your device’s unique identifica­tion, its IP address. If you are signed in to any of Google’s login accounts (Gmail, YouTube, Google+), you are identified by those, too. Over time, Google collects a compendium of your habits and preference­s, as well as informatio­n about your age, income and location. This compendium is advertisin­g dynamite for brands, allowing them to target ads with surprising accuracy.

The first of Nissenbaum’s tools, TrackMeNot, works by constantly performing random Google searches in the background of your browser. With it installed, you can hover your mouse over the icon in the corner of your browser and see it quietly searching terms such as “Sandra Bullock”, “Twitter direct messages” and “iPad cases” while you perform your own browsing undisturbe­d. Theoretica­lly, TrackMeNot hides your real interests in a noisy crowd.

The second tool, AdNauseam, obfuscates Google’s tracking by automatica­lly clicking on every ad on every web page you visit and collecting them in a “vault”. Your vault stores the huge collection of ads Google thinks you have clicked, as well as the estimated cost to the brands, who often pay per click.

Ironically, it had been difficult for Nissenbaum to track the success of TrackMeNot and AdNauseam until January, when Google banned AdNauseam from the Google Chrome store, making it considerab­ly more difficult to install.

“That was their first aggressive move,” Nissenbaum says of the ban. “But it’s good because it indicates that obfuscatio­n is a challenge for them.”

When pressed, Google tried some of its own obfuscatio­n, claiming AdNauseam was banned because it failed to display a “singular purpose clear to users”. More recently, a Google representa­tive admitted to Nissenbaum – in an email provided to The Saturday Paper – that AdNauseam was actually removed because of its potential to “harm third-party systems such as advertisin­g networks”. Google Australia refused to comment on AdNauseam.

It’s not surprising Nissenbaum is heartened by the ban – it’s the best evidence thus far that they’re doing something right.

“The idea is to look at these huge systems and find the weak spots,” she says.

“The weak spot here is that Google depends on people to respond truthfully in regards to their interests. Do you honestly think we owe that to the advertisin­g industry? No.”

In her research, Nissenbaum argues we aren’t so concerned with black-and-white approaches to privacy as we are with context. When we walk into a bookshop, we don’t reasonably expect our purchase to be recorded alongside a host of other personal data, and onsold to the highest bidder. Google’s advantage is that online we have less clear expectatio­ns – but the growing number of obfuscatio­n tools is evidence of a breach.

Ankit, 27, is a Melbourne software developer who uses a number of programs – Privacy Badger, Decentrale­yes – as well as writing his own code to protect his privacy online.

“It’s not the same as ad blocking,” he says. “I’m just trying to prevent systems from using sneaky tactics to get more informatio­n than they’re letting me know.”

Adam, a 29-year-old from Sydney who works in television, says he uses a number of obfuscator­s because he knows targeted advertisin­g works.

“I don’t want to be manipulate­d into buying things I don’t need, and I assume the government wouldn’t be able to catch unethical or illegal behaviour even if they wanted to,” he says.

Nissenbaum knows competing with Google for online privacy is virtually impossible. Her aim is to spill water on the floor until they’re forced to clean up the entire house.

“We want to cost money and cost time … until they come up with a privacy policy that’s acceptable.”

The Australian Privacy Foundation’s David Vaile says the Australian government, in its lack of action, has been complicit in Google’s “incrementa­list” attack on privacy.

“It’s undemocrat­ic, it’s manipulati­ve, but it works,” says Vaile. “They argue at each stage that this is just a little step, don’t overreact, don’t be paranoid.”

A spokesman for the Victorian minister for consumer affairs said Google’s latest move didn’t fall into the minister’s “domain”. A spokeswoma­n for the Office of the Australian Informatio­n Commission­er said Google’s promise to keep the credit card informatio­n “de-identified” put the issue outside of their domain also.

It’s not unreasonab­le to suspect Google might change its mind on that score in the future. Last year the company literally crossed out the lines in its privacy agreement that promised to keep the data its advertisin­g network DoubleClic­k collects about users separate from their names and other personal informatio­n collected through Gmail and other accounts.

In fact, Google used to keep personal data scraped from YouTube, Gmail, Google Search and dozens of other services completely separate from each other. Those walls were knocked down in 2012. Four years later, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, took in $A103 billion in advertisin­g revenue – three times more than its next competitor, Facebook.

Vaile believes the genius of Google and Facebook is that both companies have managed to market themselves as liberal radicals, devoted to “the cult of disruption”.

“They promote themselves fantastica­lly as this cool new California­n tech ideology, all the while having 19th-century attitudes to consumers,” he says.

Dissenters such as Nissenbaum believe that consumers’ weakness in the informatio­n cycle makes obfuscatio­n perhaps the only strategy to protect themselves from this kind of commercial exploitati­on. “The strong don’t need obfuscatio­n,” says

Nissenbaum. “They have brute power.”

 ??  ?? A screen grab from the AdNauseam obfuscatio­n app.
A screen grab from the AdNauseam obfuscatio­n app.
 ??  ?? ROSE DONOHOE is a Melbourneb­ased journalist and copywriter.
ROSE DONOHOE is a Melbourneb­ased journalist and copywriter.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia